The settlement of Jamestown can be viewed as the beginning of a wonderful experiment in democracy in America or as the expansion of one of the world's greatest injustices.
Most historians view it as a bit of both.
Jamestown's pursuit of tobacco created wealth and allowed a nearly hopeless settlement to thrive. At the same time, the colony's need for tobacco labor allowed slavery to flourish, bringing suffering to countless Africans in what would become America.
The story is still being written about the first documented Africans who came to Jamestown in 1619.
Jamestown reveals "the contradiction at the heart of the beginning of this nation," said Eddie Glaude, as-sociate professor of religion at Princeton University. Glaude spoke earlier this month during a scholarly dis-cussion at The College of William and Mary on the interaction of the African, European and American Indian peoples at Jamestown. England wanted to settle in the New World to keep up with Spain and Portugal in obtaining new land and making money. Backed by venture capitalists, English entrepreneurs founded Jamestown in 1607.
Twelve years later, two events occurred at Jamestown that would eventually come to symbolize Amer-ica's contradictions -- the General Assembly convened for the first time and the first Africans arrived.
Researchers believe these Africans -- farmers and herdsmen -- came from Angola and worked closely with the English. Many historians say both groups were treated as indentured servants with the opportunity to work for themselves after about five to seven years.
"This is a world in which slavery is not a rigid institution, it's a very porous institution," said Ira Berlin, a University of Maryland historian who also spoke at W&M.
But John Coombs, an assistant professor of history at Florida International University, said the early Afri-can residents of Jamestown were not viewed the way others were. Coombs has spent more than a decade studying Virginia county court records, state laws, slave shipping lists and British documents between 1630 and 1730.
While some Africans in the 1620s New World might have been indentured servants, "most are held as slaves from the beginning," said Coombs, who has studied the Rich Neck plantation in Williamsburg.
Enslaved Africans of both genders tended the tobacco fields with white men, and everyone, including white women, often lived together on Virginia plantations at least up through the 1690s, especially on smaller plantations. The intermingling resulted in bi-racial children being born.
By the early 18th century, the British slave trade was booming, and white servants were no longer seen working on plantations.
In 1662, the Virginia colony law declared a child's status to be the same as his or her mother's, so a child born to a black female was automatically a slave. A 1691 law determined that the bi-racial offspring of white women would be servants until they reached the age of 30.
These laws, along with tax incentives to discourage planters from using white women in tobacco fields, helped in "normalizing racial differences in people's minds" by highlighting black women as less than women and not deserving of respect, Coombs said.
Laws that rationalized slavery by dehumanizing its victims in the years after Jamestown's settlement left black Americans with a legacy many grapple with today. Norfolk State University history professor Cassandra Newby-Alexander remembers a legacy of racial discrimination growing up in Hampton Roads. It presented itself again five years ago when her nephew en-rolled at a public school for gifted and talented students in Virginia Beach. The assumption was he didn't be-long there, she said. "He was treated like trash," Newby-Alexander said. "The school didn't want him to succeed."
Many studies have noted that today's black immigrants -- namely those from the Caribbean and Africa -- are more financially successful, make up a disproportionate number of black students attending Ivy League universities and are physically healthier than American-born black people.
Some argue that black immigrants display the persistence to succeed that many immigrant groups bring to this country, but others maintain that a bias against native-born blacks also comes into play.
"You've got a society that has not allowed people to be people first," Newby-Alexander said. "It's forced them into roles. By forcing people into roles you constrict and circumvent their participation. In the minds of whites and the world -- because America exported its racism -- African-Americans are the only ones tainted by the idea of permanent inferiority."
Many black politicians, intellectuals and artists look at some in the hip-hop generation as an example of what happens when black people have no clear sense of identity and don't know their history: an indiscrimi-nate use of the n-word, a focus on materialism, lyrics and images that glorify black-on-black violence and abuse of women.
But others, such as Radio One Inc. founder Cathy Hughes, say plenty of young black people are con-tinuing the legacy of fighting for equality.
"Every city in this country has wonderful poetry sessions where they are preaching the revolution," she said at Hampton University this month.
The message of positive engagement by black youth isn't getting out to the masses however, because the mainstream media aren't covering these activities, Hughes said. Other national black educators and leaders have said the future of black America lies in its past -- in the ability of black people to support and honor their families, know their true place in the country's history and take up the charge for democracy for everyone, like the Africans who came to Jamestown nearly 400 years ago.
History is contested, complex and constantly evolving, said Darlene Clark Hine, a professor of African American studies and history at Northwestern University who spoke at the W&M event. "But people who know their history," Hine said, "they will be free because they will control their future."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times